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Cole Custer to make Cup debut at Las Vegas

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Cole Custer will make his Cup debut with Rick Ware Racing in the March 4 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the team confirmed Wednesday.

The 20-year-old Custer, who is in his second full season in the Xfinity Series, will drive the No. 51 car. That car has a charter and is guaranteed a starting spot. Custer took part in the Cup test at Las Vegas last month.

Haas Automation will be Custer’s sponsor.

“This is a dream come true to compete in the Cup Series,” Custer said in a team release. “I can’t thank Rick Ware Racing and Haas Automation enough for the opportunity to race at Las Vegas. It’s going to be a new experience for me, but I feel that we can have a productive day by completing all the laps and seeing the checkered flag.”

Custer has two career starts at Las Vegas. He placed third in the 2016 Camping World Truck Series race and was 11th in last year’s Xfinity race.

Custer will drive a Ford for Rick Ware Racing. Justin Marks drove for Rick Ware Racing in the Daytona 500 when the team fielded a Chevrolet. Harrison Rhodes will make his Cup debut this weekend in Atlanta for the team. That car also will be a Chevrolet.

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NASCAR Chairman Brian France upbeat Monster Energy will remain beyond 2018

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NASCAR Chairman Brian France expressed optimism Tuesday that Monster Energy will remain as series sponsor after this season and said that the Cup Series could use one more manufacturer.

France made his comments on “SiriusXM Speedway” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Monster Energy, which completed its first year as series sponsor in 2017, was to have informed NASCAR by Dec. 31 if it would remain beyond the 2018 season. NASCAR President Brent Dewar said last month that the sanctioning body agreed to extend that deadline

“They have had a really good run with us, and we’ve had a good run with them, and my hope and feeling is that that’s going to continue,’’ France said Tuesday. “They’ve been good partners. They’re bringing a lot to the sport. They’ve got a lot on their plate and so do we. We’re working with them to make sure that we have as long an agreement as we can. I think we will. I think it’s working that good for everybody. I’m real pleased with it.’’

Asked by “SiriusXM Speedway” host Dave Moody if there is a deadline on when Monster Energy must inform NASCAR of its decision, France said:

“There’s always that, but we just look at our partners differently. We work though everything. Everything to us is long term, whatever that means in a given relationship. My sense is that it has really worked for everybody. It’s also new. They’ve only been here, my goodness, just completed the first year. They’re working out some things and that’s understandable. It’s all good, actually really good with those guys. Love those guys.’’

Last month, Rodney Sacks, chairman and chief executive officer of Monster Beverage Corp., said during an investor meeting that the company was “evaluating” its future with NASCAR.

Sacks was asked in that meeting about the return on its investments, including NASCAR.

“I think that we have been quite successful,’’ Sacks said. “I think we have got a lot more visibility, a lot more recognition for the brand through the NASCAR sponsorship. It’s very extensive. It’s on TV. It’s appearing on the talk shows. We look at the metrics that the NASCAR folks give us and it certainly does seem to have been enhanced. Now to what degree, that we don’t know.

“Certainly we do believe we have been able to increase penetration but again it takes some time. I think we really started in NASCAR at the beginning of the year — very, very quick decision to go into NASCAR (and) it took us a little bit of time to get up to speed and get our activation going. We think we’ll see lot clearer benefits and more benefits coming from that relationship this year.’’

As for manufacturers, France said he felt there was room for one more in the Cup Series to join Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota.

“There’s a lot of work going on on that. Clearly we believe that the sport could not only absorb but welcome another manufacturer. These are tricky things to do. They’re very difficult to pull off. We’re just going to work toward that goal. I believe over time we’re the best opportunity not only in North America, maybe the world in terms of motorsports. We’re going to be aggressive in talking to other manufacturers as we go down the road.’’

Why just one more manufacturer?

“I think there is a limit,’’ France told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “There’s only so many key teams that a manufacturer can get their hands on and that takes time,’’ he said. “They want to have good performance and the right team alignments. Most importantly, they want to align themselves to the right teams and sometimes the teams aren’t available to do that.

“Using the Toyota approach that they had, that took them a long time to be competitive. I think the next manufacturer would probably like to shorten that timeline a little bit and be more competitive quicker. We will get another manufacturer, but it’s one step at a time.’’

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Ford teams hoping new inspection process helps keep teams close

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The engines had barely cooled after last season’s finale in Miami when a warning about the 2018 season was issued and what Ford teams might face.

“I would assume that Chevrolet will be allowed to design a car the same way that Toyota was for this one, but Ford doesn’t have any current plans for that. If that’s the case, we’re going to take a drubbing next year, so we’ll have to see,’’ Brad Keselowski said then.

Chevrolet debuts the Camaro ZL1 this season, a year after Toyota dominated with its updated Camry. Toyota won 14 of the last 19 races, including eight of 10 playoff races and the championship with Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing.

The newer models from Chevrolet and Toyota have raised concerns for some Ford drivers. Some say, they have to work harder to compete. Others note that NASCAR’s new inspection process could help keep one manufacturer from pulling ahead.

“If the new Hawkeye system is put in place and implemented for 2018 fully, not partially, fully, it would certainly level the playing field for Ford by enforcing the rules,’’ Brad Keselowski said of the new inspection station.

The new camera-based inspection station that has been called the Hawkeye system will encompass the grid station, laser inspection station, template module station and weights from last year. The new system will scrutinize the car in a way it hasn’t before.

“You just have to play the cards you’re dealt and we’ll see how that goes,’’ said Ricky Stenhouse Jr. “I think the Hawkeye system could maybe cut some deficit down for us that Toyota had built into their cars based off the old inspection system. We’ll just see how it goes.’’

Ryan Blaney said: “Even though we don’t have a new car coming out we have to work that much harder. The mindset hasn’t changed in the shop. We are always looking for ways to improve our cars, whether mechanical or aero. Yeah, there was a push maybe from other years where maybe we were more strong and you don’t feel like you have to lay catch-up a much but honestly we have a little catch-up to make on (Truex’s team) and other cars that were so dominant last year.’’

Even with Ford’s struggles last year, the manufacturer placed two cars in the championship race in Miami — Chevrolet had none, which a Chevy executive called “unacceptable.’’ Also, Kevin Harvick won at Texas last fall, providing hope that the Fords can compete with the other car makes.

Harvick said his team will have to continue to work hard maintain his level of excellence (14 Cup wins since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014).

“We have a car that is designed for a huge spoiler in the back and is the oldest car on the race track compared to the other manufacturers,’’ Harvick said. “It took us a little bit to get things situated last year with the balance. We could face those balance issues again this year that we might have to work through as we go into the year just because of the way they are going to inspect the cars with the Hawkeye system.

“With the new splitter rules you are looking at a few hundred pounds of downforce taken off the cars. There are no rule changes but everything had to be cut off in every shop.

“We worked through those issues last year. It took us a bit but we might have to work at them again.”

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New car buoys hopes for Chevrolet to avoid ‘unacceptable’ Cup result last year

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A Chevrolet executive calls it “unacceptable” that the manufacturer did not have a car racing for the Cup championship last year at Homestead-Miami Speedway but says he expects Chevrolet to have “at least a car or two” in the title race this season with the new Camaro ZL1

Pat Suhy, Chevrolet’s NASCAR Group Manager, made the comments Sunday after a luncheon at the National Motorsports Press Association Convention.

Chevrolet had no Cup car finish higher than fifth (Chase Elliott) last year and did not score a win in the 10-race playoffs — Toyota won eight races and Ford two. Toyota won the championship with Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing.

“If you look at the car count and just do a ratio of the car count, we were (seven) out of 16 going into the playoffs last year and to not have one make it in the final round was not good,’’ Suhy said.

“I expect us to have at least a car or two in the Final Four this year. There’s no reason we shouldn’t.’’

Suhy and others at Chevrolet are buoyed by the Camaro ZL1 and look to repeat the success Toyota had last season (16 wins in 36 races) with its updated Camry.

Suhy said a key to the Camaro ZL1 is that Chevrolet engineers found ways to move more downforce from the front to the rear of the car.

“As teams make more downforce, they tend to make more and more front downforce, they don’t gain rear downforce as much,’’ Suhy said. “With the old car, as they made more and more front downforce, it got more and more aero loose, so it got harder to keep the car from being too loose and unstable going into the turns.’’

Suhy said that while there were some Chevrolets that were strong last season — Kyle Larson won four races to lead the manufacturer — many teams had a challenge with the setup.

“I would say the loose to relative looseness of the car didn’t feel as comfortable getting into the corners,’’ Suhy said of last year’s car. “So I think a lot of it is really about driver comfort and how they feel going 210 mph down the frontstretch at Michigan and lifting and turning left and having the confidence that the car is actually going to turn left and not lose the front end. I think those are the things this car will help feel more settled, more stable and less twitchy.’’

Any new car can have its struggles. Despite its dominance last year, Toyota won only two of the first 17 races before winning 14 of the final 19.

“I think some of the things that we’ve done with our car and what we’ve done since it was approved, working together with our teams and with the teams working separately, I’d like to think that we’re not going to struggle that badly that early,’’ Suhy said. “I guess we’ll see. We’re prepared. If we do struggle, it’s not because of the fundamental design of the car, it’s really just a matter of more time development needed. We’re ready to address that if needed.’’

Chevrolet enters this new era without its NASCAR program manager. Alba Colon joined Hendrick Motorsports earlier this month to oversee the team’s competition systems group. She was among those from Chevrolet at the track most weekends who worked with the teams.

Suhy said he’s temporarily filling Colon’s job, along with his other duties, until a replacement can be found. Suhy said the team that developed the car remains and that Kevin Bayless, Chevrolet Racing NASCAR Chassis and Aerodynamics Program Manager, will play a greater role. Bayless will be at the organizational test Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Each Cup organization is allowed to have one team test. 

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NASCAR President discusses status of Monster Energy, new manufacturers

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NASCAR has given Monster Energy an extension to determine if it wants to remain the Cup series sponsor.

NASCAR President Brent Dewar revealed that Tuesday night in an appearance on Motor Racing Network’s “NASCAR Live” show.

Among the other topics Dewar, who is entering his fifth season at NASCAR, discussed was the effort to bring new manufacturers and how soon one could arrive, any tweaks to stage racing and the new pit stop rules.

Last year marked Monster Energy’s first season as series sponsor. The two sides agreed to a deal about two months before the 2017 Daytona 500. The company reportedly has a two-year deal with a two-year option. Monster Energy has not stated if it will return after this season.

Asked about Monster Energy’s status, Dewar told the MRN radio show:

“They signed late in the season (Dec. 2016). I worked with them very closely in bringing them to the sport. They were just looking to have a full season. They had to Dec. 31 (to determine if to agree to the renewal). We’ve given them an extension to go through the evaluation.

“There’s no question it was a great season with them and any kind of metric that we run we hit the ball out the park with them. They’re different. We’re excited. … It was the right thing to do to give them a little more time to evaluate. We’re letting them do that. We’d love for them to stay for many years, but if they choose not to, we’ve got a great product, we’ll continue on in that regards. There are meetings coming up. For the fans that have had a chance to go to the Monster activities prior to the race, they are a lot of fun. I’ve taken my guests that come to the race and we’ve had a great time experiencing how they demonstrate their brand in a very thoughtful, unique way. We love having them around.’’

Among the other topics Dewar discussed:

Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota are the only manufacturers in the Cup Series. The last time NASCAR had four manufacturers in Cup was 2012 when Dodge was a part of the series.

Dewar was asked by host Mike Bagley about the interest of other manufacturers and when any might come to NASCAR:

“Nothing to announce right now on the manufacturer front,’’ Dewar said. “We have a cadence to come in. The earliest one would be able to join would be 2020. We have entry ramps that come in. We have been in conversations with a number of manufacturers. … The platform is strong and it shows a strong (return of investment) potential for manufacturers to bring their products and come race with us.’’

Asked if NASCAR had a magic number of how many manufacturers it would like in Cup, Dewar said:

“I think optimally four or five is the right number for what we’re looking at. We’ve got a great series in sports car that focuses primary on the luxury brands. That is the IMSA Series. The NASCAR series is the mass brands, the Toyotas the Chevrolets,  and the Fords and their competitors. We think there are a couple of more brands in America that would be perfectly suited to come join us and race against their competitors. We work very hard at keeping the sport in front of them. We had a number of them at the track last year, joining us, seeing the events and the direction where we’re taking the sport. It’s a work in progress and it’s one of the ones that I personally lead.’’

Dewar on any tweaks to stage racing in 2018:

“We’re really happy with stage racing. I think it was a good example of the collaboration where the industry came together with the idea of stage racing, so we’re very happy with that.’’

On if NASCAR is trying to address the number of caution laps after a stage ends and before the next stage begins, Dewar said:

“I think we’ll continue to modify it. We’ve done a lot research on this. When you have 80 million fans we’re going to have people with an opinion on everything, but I don’t think it’s as concerning as maybe some of the conversation at this point. We continue to fine tune and look at how to refine and make those adjustments. We bring the councils (driver council, owner council, etc) together  and that’s one of the things that we have on our list to continue to discuss.’’

On the objective of cutting pit crews from six to five in 2018, Dewar said:

“We’ve focused very strongly on our star power of the drivers, but it’s really evolved over the time period we’ve gone to low downforce on the cars and a lot of the strategy that has gone into it. We really want to emphasize it’s the team. It’s the crew chief and the driver, but it’s the team that brings it together. … What we love about NASCAR is the pit stops and so this effort of five over the wall and the crew and identifying the pit crew with their numbers at the track, you’ll start to see and understand the names of the people that make a championship team, a high quality team, that’s the method behind it, that’s the logic behind what we’re trying to achieve. I think what you’ll see with five over the wall and the rules we have is we’ll really to start to focus on the athleticism, these great athletes that are really unlike any other motorsports that will be coming over the wall.’’

On the how eliminating one pit crew position will change pit stops, Dewar said:

“Pit stops are still going to be very fast, but they’re going to be a little bit slower so we can accentuate really what is happening. It’s almost too fast in some respects to capture it. We’re excited about this and what the athletes are going to be able to demonstrate because it makes a difference. A driver absolutely makes a difference. A crew chief makes a difference and so does everyone that participates at the track. Then you couple that back with the folks at the shop. It’s part of the storylines we think have been missing in the sport, particularly for the casual fan. The hardcore fans understand this, but for the sport to grow we need to start demonstrating the team not just the quarterback.’’

On the Cup Series having qualifying on the same day before a race, Dewar said:

“We like the tighter schedule, and I think there was a little bit of miscommunication as we went into it last year about two-day weekends. They’re not two-day weekends. We were just trying to be more thoughtful of the schedule at the Cup level and to allow more time and space for the Xfinity and Camping World (Truck) series when we might have three (in a weekend).

“I think the challenge this year was really on same-day qualifying with the race. We were actually pretty fortunate. We thought it through. There’s really not enough turnaround time in many cases. I think you’ll see less of that (this year). Also what we learned and we hadn’t really thought about it was the track goes hot all day and one of the most exciting things for the fans is the cold pass opportunity to get down on the track and to get that experience if you’re only coming for one day on Sunday, so I think you’ll see more of the Saturday qualifying for the Sunday (race) for the Cup and we’ll try to manage that. There’s still a lot of efficiencies we can work on. We’re just trying to find the right balance to give the best fan experience.’’

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